Professor Worth Weller
12 September 2011
How I (Briefly) Learned to Hate English
I like to think that I have always loved reading, and in fact I’m certain I knew how to read by age five. Not just the “See Spot Run” stories popular as first grade readers at the time, but complex, book-length nature tales written by Thornton Burgess, such as Old Mother West Wind, or, The Adventures of Paddy the Beaver. To this day, our favorite pastime for my wife and me, next to hiking and walking the dogs, is reading. Anything: fiction, non-fiction, Steven King, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Matthiesen, Paul Theroux, Jon Krakauer. Reading is something we do every night, the last thing before we turn out the lights. But something happened along the way.
By the time I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I had moved on from nature stories to sea faring accounts such as the classic going-to-sea-as-a-young-man memoir written by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. This was, of course, before I had become aware of the mysterious s-word, “sex.” So when Hawaii, by James Michener, came out in 1959, I was smitten. Weighing in at 937 pages, the novel, night after night for months, transported me away from what was fast becoming a turbulent home life to an ocean-going tale of far-flung places with beautiful mountains and bare-breasted, dark skinned women. Talk about sweet dreams.
At this time I had a seventh or eighth grade English teacher who was one of those classic matrons that haunt our worst school nightmares. A spinster, she was tall, and rather solidly built. I can remember that she wore glasses. To this day I firmly believe she carried a red pen perpetually behind her ear. She ruled the class with an iron hand, and when we weren’t busy standing at the chalk board diagramming sentences, she had us busy at our desks, heads bowed, silently reading the typical junior high dead-white-men reading selections.
Always a teacher’s pet, I thought one day I would impress her by showing how superior my own “reading list” was to that of the approved curriculum at South Miami’s Ponce de Leon Junior High School. I very clearly remember walking up to her after class – she was standing, or actually looming above me – and announcing proudly that I was half-way through Michener’s new novel, Hawaii. Her response? “I can’t believe your parents let you read trash like that.” Talk about stunned.
I’m not one to place too much emphasis on so-called childhood trauma and how it may or may have not altered the rest of one’s life, but I’d like to point out that it was not until mid-way through college that I returned to English and literature as a serious pursuit of life-long learning, not to mention a career option. In fact, I got a C in my freshman English Composition class at Duke, and my first college essay was returned to me with a “D” and the comment written in red-ink, “Why did you chose such a trite topic as this?”
Fortunately, Duke has a world class English department with a rich tradition of graduating novelists such as William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and Lie Down I Darkness. Even more importantly I was able to take classes taught by such southern literary luminaries as Reynolds Price, author of A Long and Happy Life. I also attended department sponsored poetry readings by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, who was being hounded by the authorities for his revolutionary free-form epic poem “Howl” and for his anti-Vietnam War protests, and by James Dickey, a poet and novelist best known for the film version of his novel, Deliverance. By the time I graduated, my love for all things English had been fully restored.
So, I can’t say that after a very satisfying career as a journalist and now as a Continuing Lecturer of English at the college level, I can blame my junior high English teacher for anything other than a few years’ lapse of love and respect for the writing profession. What I can say is “I are an English teacher,” and ‘dern happy about it!